Recognizing the often hidden hazards posed by toxic chemicals that pervade our lives, Congress has enacted a variety of laws designed to protect people and the environment from both short- and long-term health problems. The Superfund legislation aims to ensure that polluters pay for contaminating land and water. The Toxic Substances Control Act requires EPA to review all new chemicals before they go on the market. And a patchwork of other federal laws address toxic chemicals as they are released into the air and water, applied to crops to fight pests, or added to consumer products. Despite the efforts of Congress and government agencies, those who profit from introducing hazardous pollutants into the environment lobby hard to prevent stiff regulatory enforcement and distort scientific evidence of harm.
CPR Member Scholars' work in this area includes research and analysis related to the federal government's IRIS database, Superfund, BPA, the Toxics Substances Control Act, and more.
For decades, corporations intent on avoiding accountability for the illness and injuries their products sometimes cause have waged a fierce campaign against citizen access to state and federal courts. Now they've got a new gambit: a federal bill that effectively alters the rules of evidence in state courts. Read CPR's January 2014 Issue Alert.
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Protections against the dangers of toxic chemicals include federal law (the Toxic Substances Control Act), as well as state regulation and state and federal civil justice systems. TSCA needs an update, and industry is hoping to use that process to weaken the other two legs of the framework.
The endocrine disruptor BPA can be found in baby bottles, water bottles, and in the resin lining of food and beverage cans. Federal action to protect Americans from its potential harm has been achingly slow. CPR Member Scholars propose solutions in the form of a federal action plan.
EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database is woefully inadequate, out of date, outdated, incomplete and ineffective, according to a report from the Center for Progressive Reform.
Congress created the Superfund program to drive the cleanup of more than 1,000 sites across the nation that had been polluted with toxic wastes. But after the Gingrich Revolution, Congress let lapse the principal funding mechanism -- a tax on the industries whose toxic pollution poisoned the sites. Predictably, cleanups have slowed to a crawl, endangering public health in the areas surrounding toxic waste sites. The problem came into particularly bold relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it was revealed that several still-polluted Superfund sites had been flooded.
Other efforts to combat toxic pollution are important, too. One vital initiative is the federal government's Toxic Release Inventory, a compilation of industry-reported toxic emissions that can serve as a valuable tool for policymakers and regulatory enforcement efforts.
Another significant toxics issue has to do with what we don’t know about toxics. Many Americans would be surprised to discover that most of the chemicals used in commerce have never been adequately tested for safety. CPR Member Scholars have worked both to illuminate and overcome the resulting “data gap.”
In mid-2013, proposals began to circulate on Capitol Hill for updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the principal law governing the use of chemicals in commerce. Some 80,000 chemicals are in use, but only a slim minority of those have been tested by EPA for safety. Much of the blame for that belongs to TSCA provisions that establish an unreasonably high bar for EPA decisions about whether to review a chemical's safety. In addition, as CPR Member Scholar Noah Sachs and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz write "When Congress enacted TSCA, the final legislation reflected a deal under which chemicals then on the market were "grandfathered" in, while new chemicals would be subject to a quick review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But experience shows that a vast majority of those reviews are based on inadequate data."
CPR Member Scholars have published two papers examining the TSCA reform proposals. In a July 2013 CPR Issue Alert, Reforming TSCA: Progressive Principles for Toxic Risk Regulation, Sachs and Shudtz call for a number of reforms, including:
Testing: TSCA creates a “Catch 22” for EPA, requiring that the agency show a chemical may present an unreasonable risk of harm to human health or the environment before it can demand new test data that would help the agency determine whether it can make that case. The provision should be scrapped and replaced with language that gives EPA broad authority to demand test data for any reason related to implementation of the Act.
Standard of review: The federal courts’ crabbed reading of TSCA has left Americans vulnerable to a regulatory system in which chemicals are assumed safe until proven hazardous, and EPA’s efforts to make a case to the contrary are stymied by insufficient information and limited authority to regulate. A novel, competition-based standard of review would transform the TSCA framework from “anything goes” to “the best of what science can offer.”
Deadlines: Time and again, Congress has gone back to rewrite public health statutes to demand that regulatory agencies take specific actions according to specific schedules. TSCA has never undergone comprehensive revisions along those lines, which is why the safety of thousands of chemicals has never been reviewed by EPA. It is high time Congress set a schedule for review.
Preemption: State legislatures, regulatory agencies, and courts play valuable roles in preventing toxic exposures and ensuring compensation for people who are adversely affected by dangerous chemicals. TSCA must encourage vibrant state action to protect people and the environment by preempting only those laws that make compliance with federal standards impossible.
In an October 2013 Issue Alert, CPR Member Scholars Emily Hammond,Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Wendy Wagner, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin analyze competing bills for reforming TSCA: the more protective Safer Chemical Act (SCA) and the industry-backed Chemical Safety Improvements Act (CSIA). Both fall short of what is needed to fix TSCA, but to widely varying degrees, they write. In particular, the industry-backed CSIA would do harm to the overal framework protecting Americans from unsafe chemicals in commerce. The bill, they explain, would undercut two of the three legs of that framework: state regulation of chemicals, and the state and federal civil justice systems that allow victims of harmful exposures to hold industry accountable in court. The bill's challenge to state regulation has particular implications for California, where that state’s Proposition 65 program prohibits the discharge into drinking water sources of chemicals that are carcinogenic or cause reproductive problems and requires businesses to warn the public if their products contain these chemicals.
In February 2014, the same group of CPR co-authors, now joined by Member Scholar Noah Sachs, in publishing The Role of Health and Safety Evidence in Regulation and the Civil Justice System: Preserving Protection of the Public, CPR Issue Alert #1401, February 2014. In it, they criticize CSIA for attempting to restrict evidence that victims of chemical exposure could introduce in state and federal courts to seek compensation for the harm done to them.
In September 2012, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor and Policy Analyst Waydin Radin published a white paper exposing the work of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), two industry advocacy groups that have undue influence on the regulation of toxic chemicals. The two firms specialize in a particularly insidious brand of “dirty” science by recruiting EPA experts to co-author papers and participate in policy-making workshops that are heavily biased toward manufacturer interests.
Read about CPR Member Scholars’ work on toxics and Superfund: